AS NANCY B. Reich points out in her new biography, Clara Schumann "was not a feminist in the modern sense of the word. She had little interest in women's rights or the struggle for recognition that other creative German women were just beginning to launch in the mid-nineteenth century. She concentrated on her own career and her many obligations as she endeavored to reconcile the conflicts that inevitably arise when a woman steps out of her conventional place." Reich adds, "No other woman achieved the eminence she did on the concert stage, nor did any other pianist, male or female, maintain a like position for so long a time."
Clara Wieck, after all, was a celebrated pianist before she reached her teens, admired and respected by the likes of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Wagner and Liszt. She was incidentally a composer of solid, tasteful music, a cut above the stuff so many other virtuosi wrote for their own use, but not in many instances particularly memorable.
But, if she didn't quite make it as a composer, Robert didn't make it at all as a pianist. He had aspired to be one, and that ambition led him to Leipzig to study with Clara's father, who was her own teacher. In 1830, two years after they first met, the 19-year-old Schumann became a boarder in Wieck's house. Clara was then 10 years old; before the year was out she made her solo debut at the Gewandhaus, and soon she was touring Europe. Schumann was bowled over by her musicianship: once he got over his jealousy of her facility, he recognized in her the most effective performer of his music -- much of which was inspired by her and some of which incorporated material from her own compositions. When she was 15 she composed a concerto, at least one of whose movements Schumann orchestrated for her; by then a hand injury had put an end to any thoughts he might have had about becoming a virtuoso himself (though he did continue to perform occasionally). When Clara turned 21 they married, after much painful legal to-do with her exploitative father, but even to the end of his life Schumann was known more as the husband of the famous pianist than as a composer in his own right.
UNLIKE GUSTAV MAHLER, who demanded that his wife abandon her own activity as a composer, Schumann encouraged Clara to compose, both before and after their wedding; they exchanged and borrowed themes from each other, and he contacted publishers in her behalf. Clara's finest work, her solitary Piano Trio, was composed in 1846, when she and Schumann had been married six years. She stopped composing altogether at about the time he was confined to a mental institution in 1854; in the 40 years of life that remained to her after his death she continued to distinguish herself as pianist and pedagogue, but all she composed were a little march for the golden wedding of a couple she knew and cadenzas for a Beethoven concerto.
"A number of her compositions," Reich observes, "rise above the ordinary. On the whole, however, her work was not that of a major composer . . . She played her husband's trios far more often than her own and never gave any special care to the autographs of her works, while the autographs of Robert's music were treasured and carefully preserved." (Although the sole recording of Clara's Piano Concerto is gone now, several of her instrumental works and songs are available on records. One of the three current recordings of her Trio in G minor is in a new Calliope two-disc collection of her works; another fills out the Beaux Arts Trio set of her husband's three trios.)
In terms of autographs, a good deal more than the music was preserved. Robert Schumann was a compulsive diarist as well as an active correspondent. Clara was a compulsive letter-writer who also kept a diary. They kept a joint one, in fact, during their marriage, and most of their various diaries and letters were preserved to provide an unusually rich source of authentic material for several generations of biographers, who have been able to piece together more and more of the complex picture of these extraordinary people, their interaction and their circle.
Both Nancy Reich, in her biography of Clara, and Peter Ostwald, in his new book on Robert, have made pilgrimages to repositories of essential and little-known material. They have had the benefit, of course, of their predecessors' research and speculation -- and they in fact consulted with each other while their respective books were in progress. Both authors have been remarkably thorough in terms of both documented research and understanding of their subjects' character; in both books, virtually every comment or quotation is substantiated by a reference to an earlier biography, to correspondence and diaries examined by the authors themselves, or to conversation (scrupulously dated) with other scholars.
Reich, a musicologist, has organized her biography of Clara in an especially useful way for both reading and reference: a chronology of events from the birth of Clara's father in 1785 to the death of her daughter Eugenie in 1938, chapters on Clara's difficult relationship with her father (a madman, moneygrubber and brute, but a wizard teacher), her courtship and marriage, the further successes and tragedies after Schumann's death, her friendships and professional activities, a comprehensive list of all her compositions (with detailed background on each), statistics on her premieres of her husband's works and on her recital programs. She was Mendelssohn's favorite soloist, often called upon to deputize for him as well as to appear with him; one interesting chart shows that of the 261 pianists who performed at the Gewandhaus between 1794 and 1881 84 were women -- and that Clara performed there 74 times, nearly twice as many as any other pianist of either sex.
Naturally, there is an entire chapter on Clara's relationship with Brahms, the subject of so much speculation and fictional treatment. Brahms lived in her house while Robert Schumann was in the asylum, and one of her grandchildren published a booklet in which he claimed Brahms had fathered her last child, Felix. That was nonsense (as Ostwald indicates with references to the Schumanns' "marriage diary"), but the part of Clara's correspondence that might have told us whether she and Brahms were ever lovers was destroyed on her instructions. Reich's conclusion is that there was never an actual sexual relationship. Brahms was Clara's closest friend, one of the very few people she addressed by the familiar "du"; at the time of her greatest need -- not only at the time of her husband's confinement and death, but in the tragedies that befell some of her eight children -- she relied on him for emotional support and help in practical matters, but he was 14 years her junior, and it was her daughter Julie he may have considered marrying. (Julie married someone else, and Brahms dedicated his dark-hued Alto Rhapsody to her.) As for romantic involvements after her husband's death (when she was only 36 years old), it appears that there was only the single brief one in the 1860s with Theodor Kirchner, a young composer "of the Schumann circle . . . said to have physically resembled Robert Schumann."
SCHUMANN HIMSELF was one of the true personifications of the Romantic era. He was impulsive, mercurial, unpredictable, anxiety-ridden, overindulgent in alcohol and cigars, given to both giddins and guilt over his sexual adventures (with both men and women), subject to fits, seizures and mammoth depression, and generally unstable; he died in the mental asylum in which he spent the last two-and-a-half of his 46 years. He was a creative genius, nonetheless, who began writing his great works for the piano before he was 20. In short, the sort of figure who calls for just the sort of book Ostwald has written about him.
Ostwald, described as "a trained musician and a violinist actively involved in chamber music," is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco who has published other material on Schumann and music-related research. His book on Robert Schumann is actually a psychiatric study, or "psychobiography," a painstakingly detailed study such as would not have been possible in Schumann's own time, when neither today's techniques nor all the pertinent background materials were available. Readers whose interest in Schumann is primarily musical may feel ther are more medical and psychiatric minutiae here than they need, but Schumann's music is something that could have been produced by no other mind but his, and its exultant, confessional, tragic, playful, symbolic and enigmatic qualities engender understandable curiosity about the mind from which it sprang -- the mind that saw its own two contrasting halves as "Florestan" and "Eusebius," and fashioned "Master Raro" to represent the hoped-for stability and balance -- the name compounded of "ClaRA" and "RObert." Ostwald has succeeded brilliantly in making every factor clear, in explaining as much as can be explained, and in the process correcting more than a few misconceptions and false assumptions. It is all set forth in eminently readable terms, with every technical reference uncondescendingly clarified.
For the general reader Reich's Clara will provide more in the way of concise narrative and convenient factual reference, but it is good that both of these books appear at the same time, and especially good that Reich and Ostwald were able to compare notes as they worked. Little has been left to speculation, and, while there is of course a good deal of overlap, the two books serve to clarify, support and expand upon each other in the most meaningful ways.
Richard Freed, executive director of the Music Critics Association, received the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award last year for his writing on music.